I was sitting on a bed in a nice, clean hotel room, starkly contrasting the centre of Phnom Penh on the other side of the wall. We had sprung for a nice hotel as a reward for finishing our teaching contracts in South Korea. I was tired, my head was spinning from being in this new place, and I panicked: hyperventilating, nauseous, dizzy, clammy, and numb. After, I felt tired and sensitive, vulnerable. That’s when Tim left and came back with three bottles of beer. In that moment, that beer was the best thing that had ever happened to me.
Today is World Mental Health Day. This year’s theme is “Living with Schizophrenia,” and though I have no experience with schizophrenia, I figured I would share some of my insights on anxiety and panic attacks.
I’ve tried writing my story several times now and find that it has many stages and is hard to keep short and sweet. I’ll just say this: I was a shy kid and from my shyness came extreme and debilitating social anxiety. For a long time, I didn’t know it was something that could be changed or fixed. When I started to have worsening panic attacks that affected my ability to work, I decided to see someone about it. That’s where I am today.
Anxiety while traveling is normal, to an extent. There is a lot going on, no set routine to fall back on, and things are changing all the time. Traveling didn’t cure my anxiety–no magical sense of confidence overcame me in the carefree bohemian lifestyle. However, it did force me to get in touch with what was really going on in my head and to see that I couldn’t live like that. I didn’t want to miss out on all the opportunities and experiences that I could have if I could just get out of my own head once in a while.
To that end, here are a few areas of life that I found to be key in at least managing my anxiety on the road. There is a lot of information out there which delves much more deeply into the disorder, but these are a few things that got me started on my own path to recovery.
“Just say hi,” is easier said than done for a lot of people. If you suffer from anxiety, that feeling of fear is magnified. When I went traveling long term for the first time, I thought I would go out, meet lots of people, and just have fun all the time in general. However, I quickly realized that my shyness and social phobia would hold me back.
To cope with the heightened anxiety, I told myself not to force it. This was counter to everything people had told me growing up. But, it makes sense. Forcing yourself into situations that lead to heightened anxiety can reinforce those negative feelings and just make it worse. So, I never forced myself to approach and interact with people if it was upsetting. However, this doesn’t mean shut yourself away and never speak to anyone. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy teaches you to form new neural pathways and connections by taking small steps. So, maybe you can’t approach someone, but perhaps you can smile or say hi in passing. Try something small that pushes you, but doesn’t set off a chain reaction of negativity and panic.
It’s so easy to self medicate. I’m the first to admit that my relationship with alcohol hasn’t always been the healthiest. When I was younger, I used alcohol as a “social lubricant” to the point where it became a problem–though, luckily, not overly serious as I was able to perceive these bad decisions on my own. When you’re young and own your own for the first time, drinking can seem like a form of freedom. It can be easy to let it go too far.
Above, I wrote that beer had saved me when I’d had a panic attack my first night in Cambodia, and it was a comfort. This is a very personal and individual thing. For me, one or two drinks is relaxing. The issue lies in excessive drinking, lack of good sleep, and depression that goes along with hangovers.
There is a big drinking culture when it comes to travel, and I’m not saying to give that up. It’s important to be aware of yourself and your own habits. If you are someone with anxiety, marijuana isn’t such a great idea either. Though the common perception is that is will mellow you out, it can have the opposite effect if you do have anxiety, and just heighten the feeling for you.
Diet can be a controversial thing, for both health and moral reasons. There’s no real diet for anxiety, other than to have a good one. I’ve felt best when cutting out dairy, fried foods, and other junk foods. Though, the biggest thing, is caffeine.
I love coffee. Really. I (used to) drink 2 or 3 big cups every day, and pretty much drank coffee all day on the weekends. I found it calming, despite its effects. But, this beautiful relationship had to come to an end. I found that coffee agitated me and made me anxious. I swapped it for green tea and found I was able to get the caffeine kick I needed to avoid withdrawal, without going overboard.
By this, I mean the actual act of traveling: be it plane, train, automobile, bicycle, legs…
In particular, airports can be pretty unpleasant places. They are (usually) loud, crowded, loaded with perfumes and other scents depending on the area, expensive, and home to tense situations. Plus, I don’t like flying, but that’s a whole other thing. The only real solution here is to be prepared: organize yourself to maximize your airport efficiency. Pack your bags correctly, try to ensure your carryon is easy to carry around, open and close, and easy to get on and off. Wear slip on shoes, avoid wearing things you’ll need to remove at security (jewellery), and prepack your liquids into a clear plastic bag. Make sure you have cash and an empty water bottle and that you have found your gate with plenty of time to spare. Remember headphones and other comforts you need for the flight. The end.
It’s tempting to go, go, go every day when you are on vacation. But, when you are traveling long term, you are setting yourself up for a panic attack by doing this. I’d say the majority of my panic attacks have taken place on days where I was running on too little good sleep.
Sleep is not overrated, and it’s not a bad thing take a day off from non-stop adventuring.
On Taking the Next Step
For someone with an anxiety disorder, thinking about the process of getting help is anxiety-inducing in itself. It took me many years of knowing that I need to speak to someone about it before I actually did. Once I did, I completely broke down. I was happy I’d made it that far, but so sad to look back on all those years that I’d needed to do it. I almost felt like I’d missed out on that time.
One thing that motivated me was reading about the symptoms and experiences that others had and relating to them. Knowing that what I have is treatable, I didn’t make it up, and I won’t be dismissed if I tell someone about it. In fact, my doctor commended me on doing it, and said (quite cheesily) “there’s a light at the end of this tunnel.”